" In Oregon, Catholic Charities recognizes that the time is now to develop greater capacity to coordinate disaster response efforts across the state. "
Disasters such as earthquakes, pandemics, wildfires and hurricanes are unexpected, sudden, and overwhelming. The physical and economic losses incurred by victims is staggering — such as the recent loss of housing for more than 4,000 families because of the Oregon wildfires, or the more than 300,000 Oregonians who lost jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These losses are compounded by the trauma and emotional toll victims experience, as well as disruption of long-term social connections and support.

The good news is that most people can recover from disaster when they are provided immediate and long-term support and practical assistance, including emergency food, shelter, direct financial assistance and counseling. The bad news is that long-term support is difficult to provide, and assistance efforts often are haphazard and short term. While there is typically an outpouring of support for survivors in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, support is difficult to maintain for the months and years needed to fully recover. Additionally, disaster response is often poorly coordinated, resulting in duplication of services, unmet needs and gaps, and unnecessary competition.

In response to these challenges, in 1970 following Hurricane Camille, a Category 5 storm that hit the Gulf Coast in August 1969, the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster was established with Catholic Charities USA as a founding member. All NVOAD members share a common set of values and principles to guide their work, known as the 4Cs: communication, coordination, collaboration and cooperation.

To further drive a coordinated response within the Catholic Church, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned Catholic Charities to respond to disasters in the United States, and, in 2014, the USCCB identified Catholic Charities as the “official disaster relief and response entity of the U.S. Catholic Church.”

Relief and recovery services are provided at the local level by Catholic Charities agencies across the country, supported by Catholic Charities USA at the national level. In Oregon, Catholic Charities recognizes that the time is now to develop greater capacity to coordinate disaster response efforts across the state. While the church in Oregon has enormous resources in its agencies and parishes across the state, including St. Vincent de Paul, Knights of Columbus, and many local parishes and service agencies, the need for statewide coordination is pressing. Catholic Charities of Oregon intends to respond to that need. One of our first steps is the creation of a full-time office of disaster services and the hiring of our first director of that office.

In this insert, we provide a sampling of stories about how Catholic Charities of Oregon is currently responding to disasters, and our long-term efforts to build greater capacity for disaster response and coordination. We also provide updates on our Healthy Housing Initiative, which is well on its way to building 1,000 units of affordable housing across the state, including 300 units of permanent supportive housing to address the unique needs of people who are chronically homeless. Housing, we have learned, is an essential element of long-term recovery for all of us.

Deacon Birkel is executive director of Catholic Charities of Oregon.